A dramatic late winner from substitute Dean Kelly earned Shamrock Rovers their second consecutive league title as the Hoops overcame UCD 2-1 at Belfield on Tuesday night.
Rovers pushed forward from the kick-off and for the uninitiated there can have been little doubt which of the two teams were chasing the league title. With Ronan Finn and Conor McCormack solid in central midfield, and Rohan Ricketts and Gary McCabe marauding down the flanks, Rovers pressed forwards with intent.
In the first minute McCabe took a short pass from Ciaran Kilduff, cut inside, and unleashed a powerful low shot that Mark McGinley did well to deflect away. Two minutes later Ricketts sent in a cross from the right that the UCD ‘keeper almost spilled and on eight minutes Kilduff was played through the middle only to be denied by a terrific saving tackle from David O’Connor.
McGinley almost gifted the visitors a goal 13 minutes in when he dropped the ball at his feet only to have his clearance charged down by Sheppard, but the bounce of the ball favoured the Students, ricocheting to safety.
Mid way through the half Rovers created the best chances of the game when first McCormack and then McCabe provided searching low crosses from the left. Despite their physical presence neither KIlduff nor Sheppard could take advantage.
The game then entered a bit of a slump before UCD emerged, exerting a degree of pressure on the champions elect. Paul O’Conor had already fired a 30 yard effort narrowly wide in the 13th minute but now the Students’ play became more concerted.
Paul O’Conor released Dean Marshall with a magnificent diagonal ball and Marshall’s cross from the right fell to Darren Meenan who cracked a shot across goal and wide of the right hand post. Meenan again shot wide on the half hour mark before delivering a free kick which Graham Rusk knocked just wide with a glancing header.
Late in the half Paul O’Conor chanced his arm with a free from all of 40 yards that drifted just over the Rovers bar, though it is hard to imagine that it caused Richard Brush any real concern, and in the last meaningful act of the half Karl Sheppard drove a shot on the turn into the UCD net before being flagged for handball.
In the opening minute of the second half a stray pass from Finn, aimed at Ricketts on the right, brought instant frustration from the hordes of Rovers fans and a minute later they had more to fuel anxiety when Craig Sives received a second yellow for a foul on Robbie Benson, reducing the Hoops to ten men.
A minute after that Benson almost had UCD ahead, turning onto a ball from Meenan on the six yard line and shooting powerfully but straight at Brush, while Rovers made a chance of their own on 53 minutes when a curling cross from Finn was punched off the forehead of Sheppard by UCD ‘keeper McGinley.
At this point the game was finely balanced, UCD’s composed play on the ball matching a more frantic yet determined approach by Rovers. Paul O’Conor again shot inches over from distance while McCabe drove a 25 yard free straight into the arms of McGinley at the other end.
And so it went, play sweeping from one end to the other, UCD’s attacks generally prompted by misplaced passes and Rovers coming principally from free kicks conceded in and around the box.
On 68 minutes, the breakthrough came. Karl Sheppard won a corner off David O’Connor and Gary McCabe’s delivery found the in-rushing Ken Oman, the defender’s precise header arrowing inside the far post to ignite the massed ranks of visiting support. But in keeping with the ebb and flow of the game UCD were level three minutes later.
The equaliser came from another corner, this time delivered by Darren Meenan and flicked in at the near post by Robbie Benson. A Rovers boot thumped the ball clear but the linesman flagged that it had crossed the line and the outnumbered home fans suddenly announced their presence.
But it was time for Rovers to exercise some dominance. Karl Sheppard directed a header around the outside of McGinley’s right hand post and then the UCD ‘keeper made a stunning one handed save from Sheppard’s effort from six yards, a McCabe free having been headed back across goal by Dan Murray.
With just ten minutes left on the clock Darren Meenan picked up a second yellow for a challenge on Stephen O’Donnell, evening up the numbers, and moments later some superb defending from David O’Connor saw the UCD man smother Sheppard as he broke through on goal.
Rovers poured forwards in the final minutes but failed to turn possession and pressure into efforts goal while UCD broke as best they could, Corry whipping a speculative volley wide from 30 yards.
Four minutes of added time were announced but just as a winner seemed beyond Rovers Stephen O’Donnell put the ball into the Student’s box and substitute Dean Kelly poked home from six yards, prompting wild celebrations from the visiting fans. Moments later, and with order restored, the final whistle sounded and the 2011 league title found itself a home.
UCD: Mark McGinley; Hugh Douglas (Dean Clarke, 85), Mick Leahy, David O’Connor, Ciaran Nangle; Dean Marshall (Sean Russell, 64), Paul O’Conor, Paul Corry, Robbie Benson (Tomas Boyle, 85), Darren Meenan; Graham Rusk.
Subs not used: Niall Corbert, Barry McCabe, Stephan Doyle, Chris Lyons.
Bookings: Marshall (7), Meenan (42), Russell (86).
Sent Off: Meenan (80).
Shamrock Rovers: Richard Brush; Pat Sullivan, Craig Sives, Dan Murray, Enda Stevens; Rohan Ricketts (Dean Kelly, 81), Ronan Finn (Stephen O’Donnell, 64), Conor McCormack, Gary McCabe; Ciaran Kilduff (Ken Oman, 49), Karl Sheppard.
Subs not used: Ryan Thompson, Jim Paterson, Stephen Rice, Gary O’Neill.
Bookings: Sives (37), Sullivan (72), Oman (90), Kelly (94).
Sendings Off: Sives (47).
Referee: Neil Doyle.
extratime.ie Man of the Match: Gary McCabe.